Safety & Training
Armstrong: The Passenger Safety Briefing
October 17, 2007 By Ken Armstrong
An opportunity in safety
Many pilots are missing an opportunity to provide safer flights and concurrently avoid litigation in the event of an accident when they skip or clip passenger briefings. Not only will delinquent pilots potentially face Transport Canada violations, they may be fleeced financially if a subsequent accident shows they failed to alert customers of the risks associated with helicopter flights – or the methods/procedures to be used in case of emergency to enhance their likelihood of avoiding serious injury or death. Courts are currently awarding more than a million dollars for accidental death – how deep are your pockets?
A safety briefing is also an opportunity for pilots to learn about their passengers, provide a cultural and professional bond with their charges and a perfect chance to establish themselves as the knowledgeable person in command of the flight, and so put their passengers at ease. Will pointing out safety cards suffice? Definitely not! One can’t be sure that passengers will read or fully understand them and many folks are too proud or embarrassed to ask questions. The tendency to avoid detailed briefings is likely because it’s a non-revenue activity. Company operations manuals often provide little guidance to this pre-flight requisite, so operators miss a marketing opportunity to show they care while enhancing safety.
Even experienced passengers can benefit from a refresher briefing – just as pilots attend training/currency sessions. Sometimes a poor weather day or mechanical malfunction on the jobsite can provide an excellent opportunity to provide an expanded safety briefing. Topics typically missed include approaching and leaving the machine in sloping terrain, hats and loose articles that can blow up into the rotors, smoking around the helicopter and exit after a crash (include delegating responsible passengers to help children and handicapped individuals). Many pilots miss educating their charges with the location of items such as first aid kit, survival gear, and ELT (and its use). How about stowage and carriage of dangerous goods? These considerations can make all the difference for post-impact survival.
Helicopter headset operation also requires discussion so passengers can communicate their concerns and hear the captain’s instructions. Pilots should also mention the need to minimize chatter in heavy traffic areas so as not to ‘cover’ external communications, and the prohibited use of personal entertainment headsets as they can divert attention from risks. Pilots must anticipate dangerous conditions during operations and brief their passengers of unusual threats during the flight, such as ground sloping upward in front of the heli-copter at the selected landing site.
While most passengers know they can’t smoke aboard, they should also be advised of the 50-foot-radius rule and to avoid fuel drum caches as the ground sometimes has spilled fuel … perhaps a gross understatement!
Flights over water demand considerably longer briefings. Passengers need to be aware of how to access their PFDs, remove them from any protective covers, don and secure them. They should be told not only how to activate them but when. While the regulations don’t require provision of a dunking course, it is wise and considerate to provide some details on how a helicopter ditching evolves and the best methods of escape after the blades stop. Furthermore, everyone should be briefed that inflation of the life vest should only occur when the occupant is completely clear of the helicopter. In fact, the complexities of dunking and survival are so great that I feel all pilots should take one of the courses available in Canada.
Each time I requalify there are new tidbits of data that contributed to my personal dunking experience. Moreover, our responsibility for our passengers doesn’t end at water impact; it’s prudent to learn the techniques for not only saving our own skin but also our customers!
An additional benefit of a detailed group briefing is the opportunity to assess the passengers in an attempt to ensure none are under the obvious effects of alcohol or drugs that could impair judgment and thereby preclude an individual from flying. Don’t be afraid to exercise your prerogative to preclude a passenger from boarding if there is any question – and be prepared to substantiate your decision to the helicopter company and customer management. As aircraft captains, we are responsible for their safety and will be held accountable in court.